"It would be fantastic to stop puppy mills, but just to sit back and create more rules and regulations isn't going to do it."

The scene at the Schindlers' property in October was both better and worse than you might imagine upon learning that nearly 1,000 dogs lived there until recently.

Small dogs peer out through wire doors on little red cages that look like rabbit hutches, dainty paws dancing on wire cage bottoms — some with long nails poking through.

Jennifer Silverberg
Located a two-hour drive northwest of St. Louis, Mexico, Missouri, held one of the state’s largest dog-breeding operations. Until October 2010, the entrance to Herman and Bonnie Schindler’s property, seen from the county road at right, was home to nearly 1,000 dogs.
Kase Wickman
Located a two-hour drive northwest of St. Louis, Mexico, Missouri, held one of the state’s largest dog-breeding operations. Until October 2010, the entrance to Herman and Bonnie Schindler’s property, seen from the county road at right, was home to nearly 1,000 dogs.

Wooden steps lead up to rows of larger cages with wood-plank floors. Caretakers pace a small platform running the length of these cages, hosing the floorboards to make sure they're free of solid waste or stray pieces of food.

There are plenty of dogs in sight, but no exercise pens or large enclosures for the animals to roam freely. And under all the raised hutches and cages, the dogs' urine and fecal matter falls straight to the ground, piling up on sawdust, to be shoveled away later. The rows are as neat as a well-tended backyard garden, if that garden harvested piles of shit.

Whenever someone walks by, most of the dogs rush to the front of their cages, paws raised against the fencing. In one of the dimly lit sheds, two teenage girls wearing Ugg boots and rolled-down sweatpants coo at a cocker spaniel, tiptoeing through puddles of filthy-looking liquid to wiggle their French- manicured fingernails through the gaps.

"I'm sorry, little guy!" one says in a baby voice.

A ponytailed woman, clad in a SECURITY/NO ON PROP B T-shirt in highlighter yellow, intervenes.

"Jose, tell them they can reach in and peel back their lips and check that they have a good bite," she lectures. "But if they're just holding them, they need to put them down." The girls immediately shuffle off.

The yellow shirts are everywhere, pacing between the puppy sheds in the back, lingering near the sheds with handwritten "no admittance" signs at the back of the property and prowling through the tangles of floor mats and concrete feeding bowls waiting to be sold. (The auctioneer hawking them crows, "If your dogs can chew these up, your dogs are too big!")

Tension is thick. Anticipation for the dog auction, which won't begin until well past noon, crackles between the rescue groups and the breeders who will be competing with them to purchase the dogs.

Carolyn Hadley, of Something Special Castaways Rescue in Kansas City, is the unofficial rescue-group coordinator for the auction. She saw the auction as a rare opportunity for animal-welfare groups to save breeding dogs from a lifetime of drudgery.

"If they're truly closing out and no longer going to breed, if the rescues don't step up and get these dogs, they're only going to go on to other breeders," she explains.

Many of the breeders vying for the Schindlers' dogs are Amish. They wear bonnets and austere dark dresses, while most of the rescue people are wearing green or have scratched a little R on the corner of their auction paddles, a strategy to avoid bidding against other rescuers and driving prices up.

Tensions are also high between the security teams, mostly friends and relatives of the Schindlers, and the rescuers. One yellow-shirted Schindler ally is assigned to tail Hadley, in case she tries to take pictures or start trouble.

But when someone does get caught snapping pictures on her camera phone, it's not Hadley.

Brenda Carabajal, the canine coordinator for the St. Charles Humane Society, sits slumped on a curb, next to Kelly Backes, a volunteer from the same shelter and wife of St. Louis Blues right wing David Backes. Angry members of the security team stand over them, while auctioneer Bob Hughes' amplified voice echoes over the grounds: "The police are on their way."

At that, the proceedings screech to a halt. A few minutes earlier, six-dozen people had followed Hughes around the grounds as he sold off equipment: heaps of wire cages, rows of hutches, a tumble of water bottles and feeders. Now, they've joined the majority of folks, staring at Carabajal and Backes' hunched figures across a clearing near the parking lot.

"We're gonna take her car, we'll take her house, anything until we satisfy that $250,000," Hughes shouts.

Fifteen minutes later, two Audrain Country Sheriff's Office cars roll down the gravel road, dust foaming behind them. Hughes continues his amplified tirade, accusing the women of "agricultural terrorism."

"I don't come into your house, knocking holes in the walls, tearing it all up. This is private property!"

A deputy spends some time gesturing and talking to the women, the security staff and the tall, imposing figure of Herman Schindler. But no handcuffs flash in the light, and no paperwork is filed. Carabajal's phone is returned to her, pictures deleted, and the women are escorted back to their vehicles.

They leave, no dogs in tow, and immediately report to a waiting FOX 2 satellite truck parked just off the Schindlers' property. Backes tells reporter Chris Hayes grimly, "You wouldn't even think of treating your dog like that."

"She gotta buy herself a lawyer," Hughes tells the crowd.

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